SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Come September, things will look 'different' in South Plainfield schools. For starters, daily enrollment will be significantly reduced, lockers will not be utilized, changing of classes will be limited, dismissal times will be earlier, lunch will be eaten in the classroom, and, as of press time, students will have the choice of either 100-percent virtual learning or in-person instruction on an every-other-day schedule.
In its plan, submitted to the New Jersey State Department of Education on July 20, the South Plainfield School District is seeking to offer in-person instruction on an A/B Day (every other) schedule as well as online learning; prior to the governor's notice of the change, the district sought approval of a plan focused on offering virtual instruction to those with health issues as well as those to who did not feel comfortable sending their child to back into the buildings.
"I am going to submit my plan that includes that option for our parents. I believe that is something you, as a community, should have available to you. It is the right thing to do for your students, and I am willing to fight that fight," Superintendent Dr. Noreen Lishak stated during one of the two virtual parent meetings held July 16, noting that she was hopeful the governor would change his stance due to so many districts having a large percentage of people saying they do not want to send their student back at this time.
Last month, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that schools must open in September and that virtual-only instruction would not be an option, except for those with pre-existing medical conditions. However, on Monday, Murphy stated that the guidance allowing for parents to choose all-remote learning for their children would be released later this week by the department of education.
A survey sent out July 10 asked parents to select from one of three different hybrid schedule options: Option 1: A/B (every other) Day; Option 2: A/B (every other) Week; and Option 3: 100-percent virtual (for those students with medical conditions or whose parents/guardians wish for them to remain at home). Over 2,100 responses from families of the district's nearly 3,400 students were received by the July 15 closing of the survey, with Lishak noting that the results were split almost evenly among the three choices.
The decision to return on an every other day schedule, she said, was based on conversations between administrators, teachers, and even students, to determine what would be the best in terms of instructional practices.
"We found that really having students in school every other day was best for them to keep up with their academics and the effect on their social and emotional learning and their mental state," said Lishak, adding that being out for a week at a time would be 'isolating them again from being in school.' "We spoke to a couple of students as well and their feelings were the same. That if they had to come back to school they would like some sense of normalcy and although every other day isn’t as normal as they would expect it to be it's still better than being out for a week."
Note: A parent who selected A/B Day in school instruction who wishes to switch to virtual or vice versa will be able to make a switch, once. No flip-flopping will be allowed. Additionally, siblings would be scheduled for the same 'A' or "B' Day.
The A/B School Day
As it currently stands, the district's A/B Day plan would be effective from the first day of the 2020-2021 school year, which is Wednesday, Sept. 2 Schedules, along with one's 'A' or 'B' assigned day, will be posted on the Genesis Parent Portal by the third week of August. Virtual only students will also be assigned to an 'A' or 'B' day option.
Class sizes, said Lishak, will be 'drastically reduced' with no more than 12 students at a time to allow for social distancing. 'A' day students will receive in-person instruction on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the first week, Tuesday and Thursday the second week, and so on. 'B' day students will go into the buildings on Tuesday and Thursday the first week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the second week and so on.
During the days a student is not scheduled to be in the building, they will be required to log in for attendance and will participate in a combination of virtual instruction, projects, and independent work. Students may not be required to remain online for the entire day; how long and specific times, if applicable, will depend upon the academic programming and each teacher's personal expectations.
"The teacher will be instructing the students in front of them; the students who are home are going to be required to log on in order to receive credit for attendance, but they are not going to be required to be online the entire time," said Lishak, adding that students will be able to log on to lessons during at-home days but once instruction is over, cameras will be turned off as a measure of privacy.
"We are going to do our best to ensure that our students receive the best possible instruction that they can in these very different, strange times," she said, noting that feedback on virtual learning from mid-March through the end of the school year found that the amount of time students were required to be online was 'very taxing' with students getting 'burned out toward the end.'
"By allowing them the additional time to work on projects where they don’t have to be online all the time and we felt that would be more beneficial because it's still tied to the same lessons," she said.
Protocols and Changes
Student temperature checks will not be taken; parents will be responsible for screening their children for any COVID symptoms each school day and all district parents will be required to complete a COVID questionnaire online, through the Genesis Portal, a minimum of every 30 days; any student who does not have an up-to-date form on file will not be allowed to attend school. Faculty and staff will also be required to complete required paperwork.
"These are all the precautions we are taking in order to make sure that our students are going to be as safe as possible in our schools," said Lishak.
In the event a student, teacher, faculty, or staff member exhibits symptoms of COVID or who was in contact with someone who tested positive, that person and, in most cases, their class/cohorts, would also be required to quarantine for 14 days. Quarantined students will receive instruction virtually; if a teacher comes back positive or has to be quarantined instruction will be moved to an online platform, provided the teacher is healthy enough to do so and a substitute will be placed in the classroom for those students who may not have been affected.
"I can promise you that our district will do its best to make sure that we have every safety protocol in place…We are putting every possible thing in place to make it safe for your students to return to school and maintain some sense of normalcy in this very strange time that we are in," said Lishak.
Although not mandated, the South Plainfield School District will be requiring masks. Each student will receive a free reusable mask, however, students will be allowed to wear one of their own. Masks must be worn when boarding and riding buses, if applicable, and when moving around the classrooms and hallways as well as when entering and exiting building; exceptions will be made for those with medical conditions/doctor's note. According to the superintendent, masks may be removed in the classroom, at a teacher's discretion, only when social distancing is being maintained. Visitors to the buildings will also be required to wear masks.
"We understand that it is going to be very, very difficult for a student to wear a mask all day long," said Lishak. "If there is an issue with your child and they cannot wear a mask, all you have to do is provide documentation…We are not going to make it hard on you."
Throughout the buildings, hallways will be 'one-way flows' and marked to ensure 6-foot social distancing; water fountains will be off limits; windows will be open year-round; specials, where possible, will take place in the classroom; and recess will be as a class and within designated areas to ensure no mixing of cohorts (groups). Additionally, at Grant and South Plainfield Middle School, students will remain with the same cohort all day with teachers only moving from class to class.
"The goal is to keep the students in the same cohort for as much time as possible so that we don’t have as much interaction," Lishak said, noting that outside instruction spaces will be offered to ensure students can get out of the classrooms as much as possible.
In 5th through 12th grade, neither hallway lockers nor gym lockers will be used. Students will, instead, carry backpacks; coats will be hung on the back of their chairs; and comfortable clothing suitable for gym class must be worn on PE days. Snacks will be allowed in the classroom at a teacher's discretion and students in elementary, Grant, and middle school will eat at their desks; high schoolers can get a grab-and-go lunch at the end of the day.
Additionally, in order for teachers and support staff to also have a lunch period, the instructional school day will end earlier; elementary will be dismissed at 2:05 p.m.; Grant at 1:20 p.m.; middle school at 1:30 p.m.; and high school at 1:05 p.m.
The earlier dismissal times will also allow for more cleaning of the buildings and, as a result, there will be no after school activities and extra help will be virtual. Deep cleaning, said Lishak, of all classrooms, materials, and equipment, such as copy machines, will take place at the end of the day with bathrooms cleaned several times during the school day and when the students leave. Hand sanitizer dispensers will also be located throughout the buildings.
Where Things Stand
At this time, said the superintendent, fall sports are not scheduled to return until October with practices resuming mid-September and the seasons ending prior to Thanksgiving. All students will be allowed to attend practices, meets, and/or games regardless of their 'A' or 'B' day or online only schedule provided they are 'present' for that day's at home instruction.
The district is currently looking into how assemblies and other extracurricular activities, including clubs, the music program, etc., can meet while still adhering to social distancing guidelines. Guidelines for use of school buildings by outside groups, such as Scouts and other community organizations, along with the resumption of the district's before and after care program will be determined at a later date.
"Right now, the focus has to be on the reopening of our schools for September and our concentration is on the instruction of our students; all the other stuff is secondary," said Lishak, stating that once all academic areas have been addressed the district will be able to turn its 'concentration and focus' to other programs including before and after care.
According to the superintendent, the district anticipates approval of its reopening plan by the New Jersey Department of Education this week. However, all plans are subject to change according to state guidelines in effect leading up to and during the school year and will remain in effect until further notice.
"Right now, when we open in September, the plan is from then until the department of education tells us it ends," she said, adding that no one expected this to happen in March, go through June or continue into the new school year.
"I don’t want anyone to think that I am not sympathetic. I absolutely am…It's frustrating, it's disappointing, it's aggravating, and it's ever-changing. I’d love to say that by December things will be back to normal but I don’t know. I didn’t think we'd be where we are coming into September. We are going to have to go with the flow," Lishak said.
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